The Eastern yellow jacket or Eastern yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons) is a wasp found in eastern North America and throughout the Great Plains region of the United States. This yellow jacket is a social insect, living in colonies of hundreds to thousands of individuals. Along with their subfamily, Vespinae, this species demonstrates supportive parental care for offspring, separation of reproductive and sterile castes, and overlapping generations.
The most recognizable features of V. maculifrons are the black and yellow lines on the head, thorax and abdomen. The body is curved and wider than the head. The abdomen narrows at its attachment to the thorax, which is thinner than the abdomen. The antennae are black. The individuals of the species range in size from 1/2 inch -5/8”. The queens are the largest, followed by the males and then the workers.
Biology and behavior
V. maculifrons is found in eastern North America and throughout the Great Plains region of the United States. This type of yellow jacket nests in the ground, although unusual nest locations can occur above the ground in urban environments such as hollow walls, attics, and other artificial spaces.
Life cycle and reproduction
A colony consists of three types of individuals in a social group: queens, workers, and males. The colonies only exist for a single season, as the queens are the only to last overwinter. Each spring, the queen starts a new colony by herself. Until the first offspring emerge as adults, the lone queen lays eggs, forages for food, cares for the young, and defends the nest. The first offspring consists of workers, which take over all tasks except egg-laying, which the queen devotes the rest of her life to doing. At the end of the summer the queen produces new reproductive queens from fertilized eggs and males from unfertilized eggs. As both emerge, the new queens mate with the males. After fertilized, the new queens seek shelter for the winter, as they will be the founders of next year’s colonies. The old founder queen dies, as does the rest of the colony with winter’s arrival.
In the spring, the queen selects the spot where the colony will be located. Under natural conditions, the nests are almost always in the ground. Exceptions occur when the nest is located in an urban environment where it is built in an artificial cavity By chewing wood and adding in saliva to make a quick drying pulp, these wasps assemble paper nests. The queen begins the initial structure of the nest. The first part of the nest constructed is the stalk, which eventually narrows into a cord and then expands again to make the first hexagonal cell. Other cells are then added to the sides of the first and an envelope is built around the first group of cells which form a miniature comb. The queen then lays eggs in these cells, which will become workers when hatched. As soon as the workers emerge from their larval state, the nest begins to enlarge rapidly. As more cells are added, the comb grows fast and when there are enough cells on the first comb, a second comb is added, and so on. To make room for more cells, the inner layers of the envelope are re-chewed and used to make more envelope layers outside. Because most of the nests are located underground, the cavity in which the nest is built is enlarged by removing earth, carrying it and dropping it outside of the nest.
Nests of V. maculifrons can be parasitized by other species. One species of Vespula, V. squamosa, is a known social parasite of this wasp. Social parasites, such as this one, benefit from care of offspring or other resources at the expense of the social host species. Although it is capable of founding its own colony, this parasitic wasp may still usurp nests of not only V. maculifrons, but other species as well. Once host colonies are located, V. squamosa queen kills the host species queen and takes control of the colony.
Adult wasps only consume liquid foods. Most of their food is nectar from flowers, juices of fruit, and other sweet things. Since they are attracted to sugar sources, they may be attracted to soft drinks or other foods that are consumed by humans. Adults feed larvae with a chewed paste made from other insects as well as carrion.
V. maculifrons destroy many insects that consume cultivated and ornamental plants, providing a valuable service to humans. They can, however, be a source of irritation when their nests are located near homes. V. maculifrons are adept at stinging, especially if the nest is threatened. Not to be confused with certain bees that die after a single sting, these wasps may sting repeatedly whenever they feel it necessary.
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